Here at Fiction Unbound, we love time travel stories. From Rip Van Winkle to The Time Machine to the next season of Doctor Who, we’re eager to follow characters with an unsteady temporal disposition. We would need to stop time itself to read all the great time travel stories out there. The Time Traveler’s Almanac collects 72 worthy stories and reading the table on contents reminds us of all the great tales they couldn’t fit into that heavy tome. But if you stick a pin into this moment, here are the time travel stories we are thinking about today.
Lisa Mahoney: The Time Traveler's Wife is Speculative Fiction
I first read Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife shortly after its publication in 2003 when someone in my book club recommended it. The conceit is clever: Henry is thrown unwillingly back in time for relatively brief periods, usually to times and places that haunt him, like his mother’s horrific car crash death scene, or to places where he feels loved and at home, like his future wife’s childhood backyard. Henry lives violently. He arrives naked, dizzy and penniless, and he’s forced to hide and wait, or fight and steal to survive. Naked, he gets arrested or beaten up. Sometimes he hides out at his younger self’s apartment while they wait for him to dissolve back to his time, and he teaches his much younger self how to pick locks, pick pockets, defend himself and run like hell. Skills he knows he will need.
Clare, the book’s joint protagonist, grows up normally except that she meets Henry at six and hangs out with an older Henry 151 times in her backyard before he meets her at twenty-five for his first time in his “real” timestream. The lovers do their best to keep information, good and bad, about the future from each other so they can experience daily life as normally as possible.
Unlike in many other time travel books, Henrys meeting does not damage the space/time continuum, and I never understood why it should. He and Clare profit from stock tips he brings back with him, which seems reasonable. Henry, who hardly ever goes to the future, explains that he’s never been able to change anything and everything happens the way it will whatever they do. Older Henry and teenaged Clare discuss this dilemma in her backyard. She, “a good Catholic” at the time, asks why, if he believes in determinism, doesn’t he believe in God?
“What’s the opposite of determinism?” [she asks]
“Oh, I don’t think I like that. Do you like that?”
I...consider chaos. “Well, I do and I don’t. Chaos is more freedom; in fact. Total freedom. But no meaning. I want to be free to act, and I also want my actions to mean something.”
“But Henry, you’re forgetting about God--why can’t there be a God who makes it mean something?” Clare frowns earnestly,....
...Whenever Clare mentions God my palms start to sweat and I have an urge to hide or run or vanish. “I don’t know Clare. I mean, to me things seem too random and meaningless for there to be a God.”
Clare clasps her arms around her knees. “But you just said before that everything seems like it’s all planned out beforehand.”
So is this book “science fiction,” or Book Club Fiction, a category in the publishing world, or “romance?” According to Wikipedia, “Niffenegger herself is reluctant to label the novel, saying she ‘never thought of it as science fiction, even though it has a science-fiction premise.’” In her Introduction Niffenegger tries to avoid categorization, something other authors of speculative fiction have tried to do:
“I knew when I began to write that their story was simple, universal; the things that happen to Henry and Clare happen to us all.”
Then later she writes,
“The device of time travel allowed me to tell the story of a good marriage in a way that made ordinary things worth of special attention. In the face of obstacles, normal life is a triumph. Time travel can be read as a metaphor for memory; we are all time travelers in our minds, if not in our bodies. Like Henry, we jump back to moments of humiliation, loss, joy; we find ourselves flung seemingly at random to ordinary days, small unnoticed pleasures. Our present is created and shadowed by our past.”
Well, I would plant this book firmly in the “speculative fiction” area of the bookstore, and would not apologize for using the device of time travel to give the reader a wonderfully gripping and suspenseful story. Part of our mission at Fiction Unbound is to showcase the breadth of speculative fiction. The Time Traveler’s Wife is a love story about marriage suffering the pressures of unpredictable and dangerous absences, and weighed down by memories, shared and solitary, good and bad. The story teaches us that no matter how betrayed or abused we feel, with love we can, and should, protect each other from the worst stuff, and we should always go home to the ones we love.
Amanda Baldeneaux: Kindred, The River of No Return, Travelers and Future Man
I wrote about Octavia Butler’s Kindred and Bee Ridgway’s The River of No Return here on Fiction Unbound back in March 2016, during the heated lead-up to the 2016 presidential election. Seeing where we’ve steered since then, I’m inclined to believe time travel will never be possible, but that doesn’t stop my fascination with it both on the page and the screen.
My husband and I are addicted to the Netflix series Travelers, where people from the distant future are able to project their consciousness into the bodies of 21st century dwellers who are trackable by their known longitude and latitude via cell phone records seconds before their death (the travelers have an ethics rule to only take over the bodies of those about to be ejected from theirs by bad luck and fate). They have other rules, or “protocols,” including don’t save a life or take a life, which conflicts with the first major mission of season one: prevent a natural disaster with far reaching consequences that leads to the suffering of future generations. Spoiler: completing that mission alters the course of the future with unpredictable consequences that ripple into the future, and not all for the better.
My husband and I also jump in and out of Hulu’s new time travel comedy, Future Man, where a twenty-something video gamer is crowned the “chosen one” (literally, the writers have good fun with tropes) to save humanity from its grim future after he wins a first person shooter video game (a training module from the future).
Both shows focus on the grimness of the future compared to the pleasantries we enjoy today, and what can be done to divert our pending doom. This contrasts with the novels Kindred and River of No Return, which portray the grim realities of the past for everyone but the wealthy elite, a reality that pales next to the (mostly) pleasant realities we enjoy today. In the novels, the protagonists are focused on means to right the wrongs of the past to save those who suffered under cruel institutions (slavery, tenant farming), and both are left wondering if the machinations of man’s cruelties are too big to undo, even to help a single person. In the television shows, those trying to change the future face similar quandaries: that no matter what precautions you take to prevent suffering and disaster, man has a knack for finding ways to screw it up anyways. If we can’t learn from our past mistakes, maybe we can learn from the projections of time travel writers?
Danyelle C. Overbo: Where Did All You Zombies Come From?
Until I was in high school, I wasn’t consciously aware that the category “short story” existed in literature. To me, books were either classified as “children’s books” or “novels” for a very long time with no in-between. Sometimes there were short stories to be read for English class, but it never registered to me to read them for leisure…until one wonderful Biology class freshman year of high school. When my very hip Biology teacher read us a short story in lieu of lab that day, I had no idea how it would change my life. Ray Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder” was wild, imaginative and thought-provoking, especially for a wannabe theoretical physicist like myself. I didn’t become a physicist, but stories like that stuck with me and made me who I am today.
Time travel stories are a special kind of story, and I believe they work especially well as short stories. Both are meant to surprise you in some way. They can take something simple and turn it on its head. In a few short paragraphs, they can give you something steady to lean on and then, in the last few lines, rip it apart from under you. They both make you think. This is what “A Sound of Thunder” did for me. Bradbury is a short story genius. He has written so many delightful speculative fiction shorts that he is easily one of the best American authors of all time and that’s not even counting his novels. In “A Sound of Thunder,” a company runs a time travel safari adventure where folks can pay a great sum of money to go back to the era of the dinosaur and shoot a T-Rex. Of course, with time travel, there are always very strict rules to follow. And, of course, with a time travel tale, those rules are broken. It is a gorgeously simple take on The Butterfly Effect and the consequences of messing with the laws of nature. If you haven’t read this or any of Bradbury’s short works, please do yourself a favor and grab one of his many collections, ideally one with “A Sound of Thunder” in it.
“A Sound of Thunder” opened up a whole world of short stories for me, but I’ll always have a special place in my heart for time travel tales. In my opinion, they are some of the best speculative fiction out there. A cleverly written time travel narrative is worth its weight in gold for the baffling shock and awe it can inspire in the reader. Delving into the classics of this genre, you can find some pretty incredibly twisted tales. Another one of my favorites is “‘—All You Zombies—’” by Robert A. Heinlein. Talk about twisted! I hate to even explain what this one is about for fear of ruining it for anyone who hasn’t read it yet. Let’s just say it is set in a world where time travelers are hired to secretly keep the world turning. Our protagonist is a recruiter for this organization, but tonight he’s on a very personal mission to recruit someone very special. It ends with a gut-wrenchingly beautiful line that meditates on the meaning of life and true loneliness. Have I piqued your curiosity?
Sean Cassity: Bid Time Return, What’s a Century Between Lovers?
I’ll admit, I did not expect Richard Matheson’s Bid Time Return to be my most compelling read of the last year or more. Even while reading it and noting where the book was failing for me, I wanted to keep going, wanted to see what would happen next and didn’t want to do anything else but finish it.
I’ve avoided reading this book for decades. As much as I loved Matheson’s The Shrinking Man, I am Legend, and even A Stir of Echos, not to mention dozens of his short stories and Twilight Zone episodes, I lumped Bid Time Return in with Hell House as his less-than riff on someone else’s superior, more nuanced novel. Hell House was his take on Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, and I assumed Bid Time Return was his try at the classic Jack Finney novel Time and Again. I had taken a risk on Hell House and it was by far my least favorite Richard Matheson novel. Also, Bid Time Return had been filmed as Somewhere in Time, starring Jane Seymour and Christopher Reeve, which remains one of my mother’s favorite movies. I had heard her and my sisters discuss the ending enough times I didn’t feel the need to check it out for myself.
Turns out Bid Time Return is a very different novel than Time and Again, sharing only the method of time travel and a period romance to be found in the late nineteenth century. Matheson’s hero, Richard Collier, discovers the love of his life in the basement of the Coronado Hotel outside of San Diego. He sees a picture of her, anyway. And that picture pulls at him so strongly he grows obsessed and researches the woman. She was Elise McKenna, perhaps the most famous theatre actress of her time. He seeks out more and more books in which she might be mentioned. But knowing more about her won’t help him meet her. For that he will need time travel. She has been dead for 20 years.
The means and experience of time travel is enthrallingly explored. Even before Richard Collier discovers the woman’s photo he tours the Queen Mary in Los Angeles. Walking the bowels of that ship the past subtly pulls at him, and we can already feel him being ready to step into that yesterday. When his Elise McKenna obsession leads him to a book by J.B. Priestley called Man and Time, he is primed to be convinced. The Priestly book teaches him that what ties a person to the present day is their utter consciousness of now. After much study and practice Collier learns to put his consciousness instead into the days Elise McKenna was at the hotel. Eventually, he is there. Let the romance begin.
The romance is a fairytale storybook romance. By this I mean the source and nature of love is considered in as much depth as you might find in a three-page fairytale (pictures included). Elise is as arbitrarily possessed by Richard as he is by her. There is a weight of destiny, confirmed by fortune telling, to their love, which is good, because only destiny could explain it. As though the fates contrived to pull them across a century of time to give them two beautiful days together before mercilessly tearing them apart and dashing their hearts against the rocks. Those two days give Elise the broken heart that she will drag within her for the next 55 years of her life, because Richard is never to return to her.
It’s a beautiful love if you just accept it like you’re told to, if you don’t consider how this love would never have developed between his bumbling and her silence without supernatural compulsion. When their love is sure, Elise declares now she will be able to perform Juliet like never before, and since her only known love is a childish and baseless love of mere declaration I would agree Juliet provides a strong parallel.
Ultimately, Bid Time Return succeeds wonderfully as a time travel story and a cleverly plotted adventure, but only flimsily as a romance. This encapsulates my relationship with Richard Matheson, whom I at once admire and find disappointing. He can only ever do one or two things at once. Sometimes those one or two things are so magnificent they can carry the whole piece into greatness, other times the matters he his neglecting become so glaring I can’t help but wish for more ambition in his work. I’m glad I finally read Bid Time Return, but really the strongest impression it left was the desire to read Time and Again again and again.